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Artist Profile: Professor Laura Laffrado bringing NW writer Ella Higginson back to public spotlight

Ella Rhoads Higginson, one of the first prominent literary authors from the Northwest, has been largely forgotten as a key American writer.

Higginson, who lived much of her adult life in Bellingham, was celebrated for her award-winning fiction, her lyric poetry, which was set to music and performed internationally, and her position as Washington’s first poet laureate. Her most famous poem, “Four Leaf Clover,” first published in 1890.

Laura Laffrado, a professor of English at Western Washington University, will share her research on the life and work of Higginson in a talk at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 12, at Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall, sponsored by Whatcom County Historical Society.

Question: How and when did you become intrigued by Higginson?

Answer: I first learned about Higginson a few years ago when I was doing research at the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies. While there I saw that the center had 12 linear feet of material by and about Ella Higginson. Despite my detailed knowledge of American women writers, I had never heard of Higginson.

I soon learned that she was a talented writer who had once been internationally famous and was now forgotten. I could not allow this neglect to continue, and so I determined to recover Higginson and her work for American literature.

Q: Why is she significant to Northwest literature?

A: It’s hard to overstate the importance of Higginson and her work. She was the first prominent literary author from the Pacific Northwest. Her writings were said to have put the region on the literary map.

During the turn from the 19th century into the 20th, readers across the nation were introduced to the remote Northwest region by Higginson’s descriptions of majestic mountains, vast forests and scenic waters, as well as the often difficult economic circumstances of those dwelling near Puget Sound.

Her work appeared in leading periodicals of the day, and her poems were set to music by well-known composers and performed internationally by celebrated dramatic singers, such as Enrico Caruso. As a crowning honor, in 1931, she was named the first poet laureate of Washington state.

However by the time she died in 1940, both she and her writing were almost completely forgotten. She has essentially been erased as a key American writer.

Q: What are some of the projects you are working on?

A: I am excited that the book I’ve edited. “Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature,” will be published in July by the Whatcom County Historical Society. The book is a collection of Higginson’s greatest hits — her award-winning fiction, poems and nonfiction. This is the first time in decades that her work will be in print.

I’ve also written articles about Higginson’s work in order to introduce other scholars to her writing, and so lead to her works being studied and taught. I’ve been interviewed about Higginson for two documentaries that are in progress; “Finding Frost: Poets and Their Graves,” and “Write Place about the Pacific Northwest and Its Writers.”

Q: What do you teach at Western?

A: I teach American literature ranging from the 15th century to the 19th century. Next year, for the first time anywhere, I will be teaching a course on Higginson’s works. When I’m not working on Higginson, I write about other neglected women writers and about Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Q: Are you a member of the Historical Society, which is sponsoring your talk?

A: I am a proud member of the Whatcom County Historical Society, which does valuable work in preserving our local history and publishes a fascinating journal. Groups and places like the Historical Society, Pickett House, Whatcom Museum, Village Books, Western Washington University, and so many others make life in our beautiful corner of the world especially enjoyable.

For an interview with Laffrado, search Laura Laffrado on C-Span.

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